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“Just grateful for a chance to help”

June 5, 2007

P1010478.JPGTwo years ago I spent seventeen days in Granada, Nicaragua. A good friend and I delivered suitcases of children’s books and instructional materials and volunteered at Donna Tabor’s school for street children.

Newly retired from twenty-seven years of teaching and serving as a professor of literacy education, I had worked with thousands of teachers in hundreds of classrooms and now as a volunteer, I was again sharing the fascinating process of teaching and learning.

But my trip made one thing clear — too many of Nicaragua’s children were not attending school. Parents may be lucky to make thirty-six cents per hour. If not, children selling or begging on the street could help put a meal on the family table.

In spring of 2006 I learned of Empowerment International. Their efforts in Nicaragua and Costa Rica to provide essential uniforms and school materials, tutor kids at home, and counsel parents to focus on the long-term payoff of keeping their children in school fit my dream for Nicaraguan children.

Now in January of 2007, my husband Bob and I have come to Granada delivering 80 pounds of backpacks and school supplies given by EI donors. We will also participate in the hectic and rewarding days of distributing the school supplies to the children.

P1010744.JPGAt the airport, we pile the supplies and ourselves into a worn Toyota taxi. At a small house in a modest neighborhood, we meet Darcy, a volunteer who shows us around the spartan EI office and her living quarters. Simple wooden tables serve as desks, notebooks, papers and supplies fill crude shelves. In one corner, the requisite balls and bats, always found in places where adults and children work and play together.

We also reunite with Anielka, a native Granadan whom we met when she was working at EI headquarters in the United States and studying English. Anielka is gracious and talented, with a smile which lights up the room; a terrific ambassador for Empowerment International.

Four simple wooden rocking chairs face the center of the office–the kind one sees all over Granada. Families carry them into the street each evening to visit and enjoy lake breezes. EI volunteers work and conference in these rockers. With laptops awkwardly balanced on their laps, they make the plans that get over 300 kids to school and help them succeed.

P1010343.JPGOn this day, we visit the barrio Villa Esperanza for the first time. Volunteers walk or ride bikes from the office into the barrio 2 miles away. As we enter the barrio from the rear, Kathy calls out a greeting and a wiry man in his late forties, Don Horacio, comes to open the barbed wire gate.

He moves smoothly although his left foot was injured in the war. He hurries to place white plastic chairs in a circle under the shade tree in front of his simple home of weathered wood. Kathy, Darcy and I sit. Bob and Horacio argue over who will take the last chair. Finally, Bob accepts Horacio’s hospitality and our host sits on a stacked-block wall next to us.

Upon hearing Kathy’s voice, two teenage girls join us. They both hug Kathy and Darcy and extend hands of welcome to us. Yoaska, the younger, stands near Kathy’s chair and drapes her arms around Kathy’s neck. As we talk, she runs her fingers through Kathy’s wild golden hair. She braids it and fashions several up sweeps. Kathy gives herself over to her impromptu hair dresser as she tells us how Horacio helped her begin her work here. He has worked hard to organize his neighbors and bring electricity and running water to the barrio. He is also involved in a new government plan to help his neighbors obtain medical care.

P1010453.JPGThe girls are good students, attending a school geared toward career preparation. Yoaska takes additional English classes and both girls are learning computing. I’m struck by how comfortable I feel here, but we must move on if we are to see more of the people with whom EI works. Houses made of corrugated tin, scraps of lumber and plastic, line either side of a dusty rutted path.

As we walk, children run out to the fences that separate their yards from the road. Darcy and Kathy know all their names and make introductions mentioning what each child is good at, what games they like, or ways they help their families.

Children of all ages play together–the kind of free-form play I remember as a child. They use balls, sticks and swings cut from old tires. Older children care for younger ones. A boy of eight or nine carries his baby nephew off to change his pants before introducing him.

Further along we meet a woman and her husband who are parents and grandparents of the children we just talked to. She is taking computer classes. Kathy says she’s a community leader. The couple is patient with our Spanish and we share stories of our lives.

After leaving the barrio, we stop for much needed beverages. As we sit in the shade and drink Coke Lights, Bob admits he is shocked by the poverty and is grateful for the chance to help. We’re both touched by the warmth and dignity of the people we’ve met. “Que Dios les bendiga!” “Que les vayan bien!” “Gracias por todo.” The gracious words ring in our ears as we walk down the cobblestone street to our room for the night.

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